The largest and the most famous of the snake temples in India, the Nagaraja Temple is at the town of Mannarsala in Kerala, where more than 30000 stone snake images are exhibited within its compounds. Local legends claim the temple to be 3000-years-old. But historically we have only records of 800 years for this historic snake temple.
Near the temple premises, there is an ancient Namboodiri brahmin household (Illam) now re-built on modern lines. This house is known as Eringadappally, the ‘Moolakudumbam’ or the main ancestral house sanctified as the residence of the brahmin appointed by Sage Parasurama for poojas in Mannarasala temple. According to the legend of Mannarsala, the old woman from the Namboodiri brahmin community pleaded with the great Parasuram, the incarnation of Vishnu, for a son. Parasuram directed her plea to Vasuki, Lord of the Serpents, who adorns the neck of Shiva himself. Her prayer was heard. And in one of those bizarre quirks, so matter-of-factly assimilated in our myths, she gave birth first to the five-hooded chiranjivi (deathless) serpent and then to her sought-after son.
As the children attained manhood, the elder child who was Nagraja, instructed the younger brother to marry and perpetuate the line while he himself would retire from the human world. Henceforth he would enter complete solitude in the cellar below the house called the nilavra and continue to look after all succeeding generations of the family as well as thousands of devotees who needed him. He directed his brother to be in charge of worship to the serpent god and instructed him to follow various pooja patterns as per Hindu religion to maintain the sanctity of the place. The residents of the Illam are the descendents of that great priest appointed by Parasurama.
Down the centuries no one was allowed into the nilavara / underground chamber than the senior most lady of the family – the Valia Amma or Great Mother, as she came to be revered. Even today, the present Valia Amma continues to be the focus of the temple. Only she can offer worship to Nagraja, as she is the privileged priestess whose powers are perceived as divine. Once the earthly life of Valia Amma is over, the oldest anjarjanam (woman) from the family will take her place and from that moment on, live her life out in dedication to the snake god. Even if married, she is expected to lead a life of abstinence, when she becomes the Valia Amma.
The last Vala Amma Savitri Antharjanam was born in 1906 and served the temple from 1920 to 1993. The present Valia Amma is Uma Devi Antharjanam born in 1929, took over in 1993. She has her pujas to perform everyday besides setting aside time for devotees and overseeing special ceremonies held at the temple by hundreds of families like the vidyarambham (initiation of a child into learning) and weddings. Thousands come to Mannarassala in despair over their childlessness. There is implicit belief in Nagaraja’s power to bestow fertility and the childless couple comes with an uruli (a round bell metal vessel) and requests the Valia Amma to overturn it before the Nagaraja image. She grants their wish and the uruli remains overturned – in a large hall set aside for this very purpose - till the couple is blessed with a child; at which point they must return in thanksgiving and the urulis is set upright again.
Once every year, on the day after Shivaratri, Valia Amma performs the ritual worship for Nagraja who is still believed to reside there in the Nilavara and who is now referred to as appoopan or grandfather. The jungle within the temple’s premises is called the appoopan kavu or the grandfather’s grove.
Till a decade ago, till the necessity to build additional houses increased, almost all Kerala compounds had a naga grove with images of the serpent gods, known as sarpa kavu. Now when these areas are converted into habitation, care is taken to see that the sculptures are removed and taken to be kept in the Mannarasala temple compound. Some devotees come to rid themselves of the curse of the serpents which they may have brought upon themselves by harming serpents.
The most sacred ceremony in the temple to propitiate the serpent gods is the one known as the Pampin Thullal (snake dance) which is a fascinating ritual gripping in its intensity and strangeness and performed by a sect called the Pullavans.
As dusk settles quietly in the specially erected platform in the temple, an elaborate kolam (rangoli) is drawn. A puja is performed to invest the kolam with divine life and to invoke the snake god. As devotees watch hypnotized. The pullavan men dance and their women sing hauntingly. But soon this snake dance is likely to become a lost art, as the traditional dancers are deserting the art for better paying professions.
The temple itself is a beautiful building in wood and stone, its walls bearing hundreds of snake images and covers an area of 16 acres of dense green forest grove. In the centre of the temple is the hallowed ilanji tree (bakul tree in Hindi).
It is a gnarled old tree marked with serpent holes which the serpents treat as their home. Shrouded in mystery, this ancient temple has a unique, austere atmosphere – and you will sense it the moment you step in its premise.
Mannarasala Temple is located near the town of Haripad, 115 km from Cochin International Airport. MF